With a Little Help from My Friends

EMI is a company now known best for being a music company with many different labels under it.  But the company’s history is more robust than simply putting music onto records, cassettes, CDs, and iTunes. Originally called “Electric and Music Industries” at its founding in 1931, EMI started off when two gramophone companies merged, creating a market leader in recorded music.  But EMI diverged over the years, and the company is responsible for landmark inventions outside of the music sector.  For example, in 1958, the company announced the EMIDEC 1100 — one of the world’s first all-transistor computers.

That invention — plus a musical sensation — helped change modern medicine.

One of the lead developers of the EMIDEC 1100 was a man named Godfrey Hounsfield, who had gotten his start at EMI researching radar and guided weapons systems. EMI sold this early computer to corporations — only 24 units were sold in total, but the product was generally considered a success, and at EMI, a feather in Hounsfield’s cap. When EMI spun off its computing services division in 1962, Hounsfield stayed with the original company.

Hounsfield’s new project was experimental and innovative, unlikely to make any money for the company in the short term, while perhaps costing a bunch of it in the meantime.  And it had nothing to do with music.  This was a particular problem because EMI was returning to its roots and focusing on the music industry, with little room for unrelated projects.  Hounsfield’s reputation made him a possible exception, and another change in EMI’s business in 1962 gave the company the capital to invest in his big idea. That change: in June of that year, EMI signed a guitar band out of Liverpool named the Beatles.

According to a few sources, the Beatles’ success was the only reason EMI was able to afford to fund Hounsfield’s on-going experiments, as the record label struck gold (and platinum, multiple times).  Houndsfield used this opportunity to change the world: he invented the first CT scan.

For his efforts, Hounsfield would earn the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine.


Bonus fact: In 1966, the Beatles released the album “Yesterday and Today,” featuring the “Butcher cover” — cover art depicting the band in butchers’ coats holding disembodied baby dolls covered in blood (really corn syrup), which spiked outrage from the media and some fans. (See it here.) Capitol Records recalled the albums in order to replace the cover art, but having already produced thousands of the Butcher cover, they instead glued new covers onto the recalled ones. Fans quickly figured out the ruse and tried to peel off the new cover, in almost all cases failing. The Butcher cover has become a collector’s item.

From the ArchivesZapped Chocolate: The history behind another invention now part of our everyday lives.

RelatedThe Beatles Anthology. Five stars on 359 reviews.

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